Jacobs Surfboards was located at the southernmost end of Hermosa Beach’s “Miracle Mile” of surf shops, which meant that if you came down from Manhattan Beach and were hopscotching Pacific Coast Highway with the intention of hitting ’em all in order—Bing, Rick, Noll, Weber and Jacobs—you were saving the best for last. Steve Pezman called Jacobs the “Notre Dame Cathedral” of surf shops, which I suppose is true if your starting place is, say, Dale Velzy’s first joint in Manhattan, which was an unventilated 700-foot cinderblock hutch. In contrast, the street-facing side of Jacobs Surfboards—retail in front, factory in back; 2,750 square feet total—was trimmed in flagstone, and fronted by an enormous four-panel plateglass window that canted out slightly as it rose to a ceiling which was, if not cathedral-like in height, lifted well above the impeccably-carpeted and vacuumed floor.
Everything about the place, in fact, was clean and tight and well-ordered. New horizontally-displayed boards gleamed behind that giant window like tropical fish floating in a building-sized aquarium. Black-and-white teamrider pics—of Lance Carson, Robert August, Donald Takayama and Ricky Irons in the mid-’60s; Dru Harrison and Mike Purpus a few years later—were set in identical black frames and arranged in a perfect grid on the wall behind the counter.
Jacobs Surfboards was built in the image of its founder and owner, Hap Jacobs, who died last week at 91. Hap was smart and handsome, lean, soft-voiced, and meticulous. Easy to get along with. Great design eye—I’m not sure if Hap himself drew up the Jacobs Surfboards blueprints, but the shop was custom built from the ground up as a factory-showroom, and I’d be shocked if Hap didn’t have a say in everything, right down to drawer pulls.
“Gentleman” comes up often when people describe Jacobs—but again, like with the shop itself, the term is relative. It’s an easy bar to clear, that is, when your contemporaries are Noll and Velzy.
No, that probably isn’t fair to any of those guys. Velzy was a tattooed roughneck, sure, with a flask in his pocket and a standing invitation to any Boozefighters Club meet-up. But he was also courtly enough to sit on an upscale Waikiki hotel lanai and chat with David Niven. And, conversely, Jacobs spent enough time in the boardmaking trenches with Velzy during their four-year partnership in the 1950s to develop a taste for the hustle. “We had a model called the New Shape,” Hap told Steve Pezman during a 2010 interview, recalling Jacobs Surfboards’ mid-’60s peak. “That lasted about four years. It was always the same shape, but kids and their moms would come in asking about the ‘new thing’, and we’d tell them about the New Shape.”
We contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman said after picking up his custom-order New Model in 1967.
Sadly, if we’re talking about South Bay boardmakers, we contain fewer multitudes today than we did at this time last year. Mike Eaton, Phil Becker, and Greg Noll, like Jacobs, died in 2021—which leaves Bing Copeland as the last of the original Miracle Mile boardmakers.
To make this gloomy end-of-2021 Joint even gloomier, Joan Didion also died last week, and if I’m being honest, I’ve thought more about her these past few days than I have departed boardmakers.
Growing up has a lot to do with who you choose to emulate. For a person more or less my age and temperament, at some point you become less Greg Noll and more Hap Jacobs. For a journalist-writer more or less my age and temperament, you drop Tom Wolfe and aim for Joan Didion—in part because she understood that, like it or not, Greg Noll will be with you for the duration of the ride. “We are well-advised,” Didion wrote in 1967, “to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”
Didion, cool-voiced and cerebral, unsmiling but sly-funny, with a crystalline view of herself and her surroundings, wrote often and at length about California, and how dark things were beneath the state’s sun-warmed facade. Yet I could not think of a Didion column or essay that ever touched on surfing. This morning I searched “joan didion surfing” and was delighted but not at all surprised to find that she did, in fact, briefly swivel that unblinking gimlet eye of hers in our direction. Click here to read her Vogue magazine review of Ride the Wild Surf. I know this is not flowertop Didion. And I know she is politely smirking when she says she has “fallen under the spell” of surf movies.
But who cares.
Joan Didion walking into an NYC theater to watch a surf movie in 1964 is the most cheerful thing that happened to me over the past few days here in 2021.
Or second-most cheerful. Christmas morning in a snow-topped cabin with my family and “Little Saint Nick” on loop is as good as it gets. Hope you all are enjoying the holidays, too, and see you next week!
[Photos: LeRoy Grannis]